I was just reading this article on "Misadventures in Networking" at the Chronicle Vitae site--MA student Laura Smith does a little research to come to the conclusion that as much as she gets nervous at the idea of approaching established people in her field to network with them, they are probably just as wary of being approached … the wrong way.
This is true online as well.
I often receive questions from my own extended network that run something like this: "Hey, I know you do the Internet and stuff, so can you tell me how Twitter works because I want to advertise my conference."
My answer is: "You needed to be on Twitter a year ago to lay the groundwork for this."
That is, in social networking online as in person, you'll have a lot more success is you put some goodwill and effort into the system, before you start asking for goodwill and effort to be expended on you. As with any good networking, you start to build your contacts and relationship for their intrinsic interest first--later, they might be useful in a more practical way.
So if you don't know why you might go on Twitter or Facebook or whatever, that means it's probably the right time to start: once you have a book to promote, or you're looking for a job, or you're trying to crowdsource a reference list, you're going to wish you had that network already in place. So start it now.
Here's how: Research. Join. Follow. Lurk. Add value. Connect.
Research: where does the online networking take place in your field? Is everyone on Academia.edu, or on LinkedIn? Or are they hanging out more informally on Facebook or Twitter? Maybe your field has a number of important blogs and bloggers where more formal but still networking conversations take place. Figure out where the people you want to hang out with are. That's step one. There's no sense trying to optimize your work profile on Pinterest if there are no other academics there. You don't look for a book contract at Chuck E. Cheese: figure out where the action it, and go there.
Join: create a profile for yourself on the relevant network. If there're multiple networks, create consistent profiles at each of them--I'm 'digiwonk' on Twitter, and I'm also 'digiwonk' here on the blog, for example. Put some thought into user names, avatars, and profile text: when you're just starting out, people will scan these to try to figure out who you are, if you matter, and how. When I get notices of new follows in Twitter, I look at the picture and the brief text: a picture of a cartoon mouse and a sentence about the deserts of New Mexico? Ignore. A picture of a head and a sentence about graduate study in rhetoric and internet feminism? Followback! Sometimes, if I can't figure it out, I'll look at someone's list of followers, or at the content they're sharing. But you've just joined: all you've got is your user name, your avatar, and your profile text. Choose carefully in such a way to engender interest in your target group.
Follow: On Twitter, follows aren't necessarily mutual: look up the people you want to know, and follow them. They're probably not going to follow you back yet. That's fine. But the list of people you follow is another clue to your potential network about who you are and what you value. Facebook 'friending' has to be mutual, so start with people you already know in real life, and that way you can "bump into" their networks, in a kind of six-degrees-of-Lauren-Berlant sort of way that makes future friending easier. Figure out if your desired network requires mutual follows, and if it doesn't, follow away! If it does, do the next two steps now and come back to this one after.
Lurk: Figure out how this network works by listening in on the conversations: what blend of original content, resource sharing, back-and-forth conversations, self-promotion, advocacy, and cat memes do the members of your aspirational network engage in. What kinds of material do they share, and what kinds of posts or links or conversations seem to draw the most engagement or interest? Hang out in the background for now, getting a feel for the social and interactional norms of the space. Learn the implicit rules.
Add value: This is important. You have to put stuff into the network before you pull stuff out of it: that's just fair. What constitutes "value" will differ network to network, and discipline by discipline. I work in contemporary topics in new media, so in my network, it's valuable to share news articles and blog posts about the latest news. In other fields different material will get shared: maybe syllabi, maybe accession numbers for archival materials. Usually, adding value is different from self-promoting: use your tweets or your posts to offer content that other people already are looking for. Answer a question; send a link.
Connect: You've joined the right social media site. You've crafted a clear profile. You've figured out the prevailing social norms. You've started to add value into the system by sharing relevant content. Through all this, you're building your own profile, your ethos: now connect. On Twitter, you can start @replying to scholars you want to connect with. Start following more people now, and it's likely they'll follow you back. On Facebook, you can start sending friend requests to people who comment in similar ways to you on content you both see. Send invites on LinkedIn. Chances are some people will now know who you are and be more disposed to follow you back, or to friend you, or link you. Getting the first 20 contacts is really hard. Getting to 50 is a little easier. Getting to 100 after that is easier still. The network builds faster as you grow it, and you grow it by being valuable to others.
I've not said anything about getting your conference promoted, or getting the name of a book editor, or a suggestion for a good anthology for a Canadian poetry course. You build the network first, get established, connect. Then when you need help, it's a lot easier to ask for it--and a lot more likely it will be offered.
Do you have any questions or advice to offer on digital networking? Leave 'em in the comments!